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The Evolution of Being Seen

14 Jan 2022 4:02 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Capt. Jay Niederhauser, former Pacific Northwest Fleet Commodore
From Classic Yachting – Winter 2022

Capt Jay Niederhauser is a retired Puget Sound Pilot and tug captain with Foss Maritime. He owned and operated Savona, a 40-foot Ed Monk bridge-deck sedan for 23 years, and was Commodore of the PNW Fleet of the Classic Yacht Association in 1981. He still is an active sailor cruising on Puget Sound and to Alaska in the summer on Westerly, a 37-foot cruiser.


IN THE BEGINNING, there were beautiful classic yachts, inspired by designers and owners, built by skilled craftsmen, and operated by owners for whom boating enjoyment was a chosen lifestyle. (It still is for many of us.)

EARLY ON, while navigating the primordial seas, there was little fear of collision. Of greater concern, rocks and sandbars were the problems. Later, when beautiful classic yachts and other vessels became plentiful, the possibility of collision with other vessels became of greater problem. Safe navigation became dependent on keeping a good lookout, seeing other vessels that might obstruct your course, and assessing through periodic observation the possibility of collision. It was during these early times that international navigation rules came into existence to govern the actions of navigators to produce a safe cruising outcome. We should have all learned these “Rules of the Road” to ensure our safe cruising.

THEN THERE WAS RADAR, designed to help navigators see other vessels. But there were, and are, challenges in seeing beautiful classic yachts with radar. First, many boats have a relatively low profile, and second, they are constructed of materials that do not reflect radar beams. From many years of experience manning radars on commercial vessels, I can tell you that low-profile boats and small sailboats can be very challenging to see on the radar. It takes an experienced hand on the radar adjustments (tuning, gain and sea clutter) to consistently detect and then properly assess what maneuvering actions may be necessary.

Note on radar. Traditional pulse radars use high-powered magnetrons to generate microwave signals with very short pulses of applied voltage. New solid-state X-band radar technology utilizes FMCW (Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave) techniques. These systems provide target detection superior to pulse radars while transmitting at far lower energy levels and provide target detection from 20 ft to 48 nm or more. Newer systems even include a Doppler effect allowing you to discern moving targets and their direction.

RADAR REFLECTORS CAME NEXT. These devices help radars to see beautiful classic yachts (and sailboats). These provide an order of magnitude improvement in radar detection; however, this aid has been slow to be adopted probably because defectors are an ugly appliance and not consistent with original intent of our vessels’ designers. And yet, in Canada, there is a regulatory requirement that boats less than 65-foot LOA be fixed with a radar reflector. From my view, any low profile wooden vessel less than 65-foot should be equipped with one.

Note on radar reflectors. There are passive and active reflectors. Traditional reflectors are passive and their effectiveness is proportional to their size. They should be sufficiently large to reflect radar waves (2.5” or 4” wave heights) and their effectiveness is increased by size; thus, larger is better. Active reflectors sense incoming radar signals and transmit a return signal.

Canadian Shipping Act 2001. (excerpt) Rule 40 Radar Reflectors (a)....a vessel that is less than 20 metres in length or is constructed primarily of non-metallic materials shall, if practicable, be equipped with a radar reflector or other means to enable the vessel’s detection by other vessels navigating by radar at 3 GHz or 9 GHz.

AIS (Automated Identification System) electronics have now arrived. These enable all AIS-equipped navigators to see all nearby boats equipped with an AIS transponder/transmitter. This information can be used to provide excellent information that greatly assists in making collision avoidance assessments. The concept of AIS provided information to a navigator is a vast improvement in situational awareness and navigation safety. The expense of acquiring and installing a Class B AIS is generally less than one boating unit and is generally sufficient for inland and coastal navigation.

Even though there are inherent limitations in AIS information such as frequency of reported position, and the inaccuracy of course over ground (COG) vectors in the vicinity of strong tidal currents (it’s important for all AIS users to know about these), the improvement in being seen and helping to make correct and safe navigation decisions is remarkable.

So, if you have a beautiful classic yacht, and you don’t have a radar reflector, please install one. It is still needed for radar equipped vessels that do not have AIS to be able to see you. And if you have navigation software that can incorporate AIS data, it is a relatively easy step to avail yourself of technology that will greatly improve the safety of boating with your family and friends, and enjoyment of your beautiful classic yacht.

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